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Not up to speed

Affluent suburbs lag behind cities in answering emergency calls

When a middle-aged landscaper fell, convulsing on the ground in his front yard last July, Frank Gordon called the Boxborough Fire Department for an ambulance.

Ten minutes later, the man now limp and unconscious and still no help in sight, Gordon called back. Another 10 minutes, still nothing. Exasperated, he called a third time, his voice now rising in panic. Apologies, said the dispatcher, everybody is busy. The call has been rerouted to another town, an ambulance would be there any moment.

It was 25 minutes after the initial call was placed before the first responder finally arrived. The land-

A map showing community-by-community response times is inside, Page 6

scaper, who'd had a grand mal seizure, was still unconscious but otherwise OK. Gordon was not. He was livid.

"If it had been a fire or someone had been bleeding, it could have been fatal," he said. "It was incredibly frustrating. My wife kept asking me if I had given them the right address. It was getting to the point where I didn't know if anyone was going to come."

In this quickly growing town where million-dollar homes are popping up like mushrooms, Boxborough Fire Chief Kevin Lyons says that scenario could be repeated almost any time the department is faced with two calls at once. There is just a single pair of firefighters on duty at any given time in Boxborough -- and they are responsible for both the ambulance and fire service. If those two men are busy, residents are going to have to settle in for a wait.

"It's like playing Russian roulette," said Lyons. "We just don't have the manpower to respond to multiple calls."

Across the Interstate 495 belt where developers have built houses faster than communities can beef up their infrastructure, fire departments are struggling to make the transition from sleepy communities with volunteer fire departments to wealthy suburbs with ever-increasing demands.

According to a Boston Globe investigation, between 1986 and 2002, 14 of 33 towns in the area served by Globe NorthWest failed to meet national standards for response times, and delays getting to fires are growing.

The consequence is that while residents flock to Boxborough for its top-notch schools and attractive, wooded neighborhoods, they are being served by a fire department that is -- by the chief's own admission -- woefully inadequate. According to national standards, a department should be on the scene of an emergency call in 6 minutes 90 percent of the time. Boxborough met that goal 62 percent of the time, according to a Globe investigation.

By contrast, the most densely populated urban communities, like Lawrence and Lowell, with full professional staffs, have some of the best response times in the state.

In Boxborough, since there are only two firefighters per shift, if they encounter a fire, they are trained to wait for backup before entering a building for search and rescue. And if a fire has engulfed the home and the roof needs to be ventilated, they will have to wait for a ladder truck to arrive from another town because the chief scrapped the department's 37-year-old ladder last year after it failed inspection.

"There's no point in spending three-quarters of a million dollars to replace it because we don't have the staff to man it anyway," Lyons said. "The truth is, if my two guys are answering a call and a building catches fire, I'm [in trouble]. There's no pretty way to put it."

In Westford, a town that has been inhaled by developers in the last 10 years, response times are even slower. Firefighters responded to calls within 6 minutes 53 percent of the time, according to the Globe investigation, and in the short term at least, it appears those delays are going to grow. Houses are being built in the far corners of the town -- 10- and 12-minute drives away from the nearest fire station.

In recognition of this problem, Westford in 2000 invested in a new $1.8 million fire substation in the underserved Graniteville section, where 19 percent of all the town's calls originate. The drawback? The station has been empty ever since it was built, said Westford Fire Chief Richard Rochon. The town hasn't approved the money to staff it.

"We've had it in the budget before, but we've had to cut it at the 11th hour," said Town Manager Steven Ledoux. "Financially we're just not in the position to add new bodies."

As a result, engines from Westford's only operating substation have to race a minimum of 10 minutes across town to reach a call in Graniteville. The trip is so laborious and made so frequently, the engines garaged in the substation have thousands more miles on them than engines garaged in the Fire Department's headquarters, Rochon said.

In the near term, the strain on resources is likely to worsen. Westford is on the cusp of approving a development that straddles the Acton border on the southern edge of the town. The shortest route from the nearest Westford station winds through three towns and takes 10 minutes with no traffic.

"We're stretched really thin," says Rochon. Even though the department has grown from nine full-time firefighters in 1987 to 27 today, Rochon said the department is understaffed and could use about 40 full-timers to keep up with the call volume, which has tripled during that same period. "The hardest thing for us to do is to keep up with development," he said.

Earlier this month, during a sleet storm, response times were substantially longer and Rochon was anticipating a very busy evening.

"On a night like this, I won't really sleep," he said. "I think there's a lot of chiefs saying a lot of prayers around this area."

Part of the problem in Westford, as in many other bedroom communities, is that while call volumes are increasing, the ranks of volunteer firefighters who bolster small and medium-sized departments, are decreasing.

In 1995, five volunteer firefighters showed up, on average, on calls. By 2003 that number had dropped to three, according to the chief.

"It's a demographics thing," Rochon said. The people moving into towns like Westford and Boxborough are increasingly professionals, working long hours and commuting into Boston to make payments on big mortgages. The blue-collar workers, who tend to gravitate toward the volunteer fire service, are being priced out of town, he said.

Despite longer response times, chiefs in the area said their concerns do not appear to be generally shared by their communities. Even in Carlisle, where the average home price is nearly $500,000 and the median household income is almost $160,000, Fire Chief David Flannery said response time is a nonissue. And this is in a community with an all-volunteer department that met the national standard of 6 minutes only 24 percent of the time between 1986 and 2002.

It has simply not been a priority in Carlisle, said Flannery. Fire spending is $30 per capita per year, or one-eighth of what is spent in Boston and one-fifth of what is spent in neighboring Bedford.

"We've never had a debate here," said Flannery. "Carlisle accepts what they have. Our budget is $240,000. Full-time staffing would cost between $800,000 and $900,000, and in Carlisle, the tax dollars go to the schools."

For that $240,000, residents get a staff that Flannery said is well trained, but that takes an average of two to three minutes to get from their homes to the station. Add to that the two to three minutes to get out the door, and the three to four minutes to get to the scene of a fire.

If the roads are icy or the volunteers have to shovel out their own cars before they drive to the station, that response time can quickly double, as it did one night a few years ago during a December snowstorm. A pet had kicked over a light on a porch while the owners were away, Flannery said. A neighbor saw smoke and called the Fire Department.

If the engines had been able to respond in 6 minutes to the ensuing fire, Flannery estimates that just the porch would have been lost. But because it took firefighters about 14 minutes to reach the scene, half the house was destroyed.

"It's worked this way in Carlisle for 77 years," said Flannery. "It's the community's decision . . . to go to full-time staffing, but it's not free and they know that."

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